Today I finished re-reading Don DeLillo’s first novel, Americana (1971). It was a frustrating experience.
I’m a huge fan of DeLillo. I consider him to be the preeminent post-WWII American novelist, surpassing not only Mailer, but also the rest of the post-WWII canon (Updike, Roth, Bellow), leaving them in his dust. The best American novelist since Faulkner, that’s my opinion of DeLillo.
I first read Americana back in the fall of 1996. I didn’t remember it very well at all; in fact, I might as well have never read it. Beyond a memory of vague dissatisfaction, I didn’t remember one thing about it. Now I’ve read it again, and I know what I don’t like about it.
The book is, simply, overwritten. The prose achieves brilliance at times, but almost always spoils itself by going on too far, like this:
My father had just turned fifty-five, a fact which seemed to have transformed him, virtually overnight, into a role of elder statesman. Prior to our meeting in the restaurant I had seen him just once since his birthday. On that occasion, a drink after work, he had seemed very conscious of his elbows. When he spoke he would pivot on the barstool and lean toward me with both elbows flung up and out like delta wings. At other times, head hanging loosely over his drink, he would raise his right index finger and then use it to tap his left elbow, which lay bent on the bar. I wondered whether the significance of his remark might be fully uncovered only by opening up the elbow and picking with a delicate surgical instrument among its connective tissues. That evening he had made me think of John Foster Dulles and Casey Stengel, two elder statesmen who knew how to use their elbows.
Or this wince-inducing lapse into pseudo-profundity:
Summer in a small town can be deadly, even worse in a way than slum summers or the deep wet summers of gulf ports. It isn’t the deadliness of filth or despair and it doesn’t afflict everyone. But there are days when a terrible message seems to be passing from sunlight to shadow at the edge of a striped afternoon in the returning fathoms of time. Summer unfolds slowly, a carpeted silence rolling out across expanding steel, and the days begin to rhyme, distance swelling with the bridges, heat bending the air, small breaks in the pavement, those days when nothing seems to live on the earth but butterflies, the tranquilized mantis, the spider scaling the length of the mudcaked broken rake inside the dark garage. A scream seems imminent at every window. The menace of the history of quiet lives is that when the moment comes, the slow opened motion of the mouth, the sound which erupts will shatter everything that lives for miles around. The threat is at its worst in the summer [... etc, etc, etc.]
The conceit of Americana is that of a man grown world-weary at twenty-eight, running away from his high-powered Manhattan TV-network job to disappear into the Midwest and make a reflective film about himself, his life and the “soft white underbelly” of the American Dream, all at the same time. At 377 pages, it’s about 177 pages too long. You can sense a novelist of considerable gifts immersed somewhere in all the purple prose. Fortunately, that novelist was soon to emerge; DeLillo’s second novel, End Zone (1972), was absolutely first-rate, the work of a mature and extremely talented writer of fiction.
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